Almost one in four British children do not know what a refugee is, survey says

‘Refugees want to build a new life for themselves and their families – having made their perilous journey here and having lost so much already’


Corazon Miller
Wednesday 19 June 2019 12:11
A woman and child hug in a clip from the British Red Cross campaign for Refugee Week
A woman and child hug in a clip from the British Red Cross campaign for Refugee Week

Almost a quarter of British children do not know the meaning of the word “refugee”, according to a new survey, amid mounting evidence of a growth in negative sentiments and scepticism towards those seeking asylum in the UK.

Just over half of teachers (52 per cent) spoken to by the British Red Cross (BRC) said they had witnessed “anti-refugee” sentiments in their pupils and almost a quarter of children (24 per cent) did not know what a refugee was.

The poll of 750 primary and secondary school teachers across the UK also showed that 54 per cent believed media, including social media, was a contributing factor to the children’s negative sentiments.

The figures were released as the nation marked refugee week with hundreds of festivities inviting people to explore the lives of refugees living in the UK.

Alex Fraser, of the BRC, said while there were a lot of positive stories in the community, negativity still existed on social media, the street and in classrooms.

“We want to encourage a more informed conversation online and in schools ... and create conditions of greater shared understanding,” he said.

Meanwhile, a new Ipsos global online study of 26 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific showed overall Britain remained open to welcoming refugees – albeit with some levels of concern around the validity of their claims for asylum.

Seventy-two per cent of British respondents agreed people should have the right to seek refuge from war and persecution, compared with 61 per cent globally.

British Red Cross campaign for Refugee Week

However, there has been a growth in British who are sceptical that refugees’ claims are genuine – up to 51 per cent from 47 per cent in 2017.

They were also divided over whether refugees would integrate successfully, with 45 per cent believing they would do so compared to 38 per cent who did not.

Ipsos research director Kully Kaur-Ballagan said the findings showed on the whole the British were compassionate about people’s fundamental rights to seek refuge.

“However, in practice there is widespread concern about people taking advantage of the system and the public remains relatively divided over the extent to which refugees will successfully integrate into their new society.”

Image from the British Red Cross video campaign for Refugee Week 2019

Refugee Action head of resettlement Lou Calvey said refugees were “desperate to work and contribute”.

But she said it was a gruelling process for those seeking asylum – many of whom waited months with minimal financial support of £37.75 a week.

Those with status also faced challenges getting access to mental health services, English language classes and getting into work that matched their skills.

“I know a Syrian teacher, a bus driver, he’s happy to be working. But something is wrong if he is not able to bring that experience of teaching in Syria for 20 years back to the UK.”

Emma Harrison, the CEO of IMiX, a migration communications hub, said investing in English lessons and enabling people to work while their asylum claim was being processed were key to a successful integration.

“More than anything, refugees want to build a new life for themselves and their families – having made their perilous journey here and having lost so much already.”

For Ahmed Osman, 53, the cost of moving to the UK has been high – he no longer felt able to talk to the family he’d left behind, he struggled with thoughts of suicide and spent a year homeless on the streets of London.

Ahmed Osman, 53, was unable to return home to Egypt after former business associates made threats on his life

The call upset his mother so much, he no longer felt able to talk to them.

“I’m no young boy to cry like this…[but] I want to see my mum. Five years, I have not called my mum or called my dad. I love them so much, but I called them just one time when I arrived to say I was OK.”

Osman said he’d been happy with his life working as an import-export manager in Egypt, where he helped provide for his four siblings, parents and son.

And if it hadn’t been for a business deal in 2013 that went wrong when a UK-based client went bankrupt without paying up, Osman would likely never have left.

Instead, having come to the UK in 2015 to attempt to recoup his losses, Osman found himself stranded and unable to return, due to threats on his life by those to whom he now owed money.

“Now I can’t go back to Egypt. People are looking for me, as this money is not my money, I can’t return money to these people.”

Legally unable to work while seeking asylum, he ran out of money and for a year lived on the streets around Trafalgar Square and Shepherd’s Bush.

The British Red Cross has released a video campaign for Refugee Week 2019

Ashamed of his living situation, Osman’s thoughts turned to suicide.

“No one in my family knows my story. They will die if they know something like this – I felt bad.”

Osman said today things were looking up. He’d completed a business course, found a studio apartment and had established a fruit, vegetable and juice store.

He said this was all that refugees wanted when coming to the UK.

“We are not lazy and crazy. We have energy, we come to work.”

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